Resistance: Your social justice events should be accessible

I was recently contacted by one of the organisers of an extremely large event with national backing, asking if I would be attending and asking for my support. I looked at their website, which was very slickly engineered and very Silicon Valley (no surprise, given that the event was in San Francisco), and I noticed both that the website itself was inaccessible, and there was no information on the site about accessibility at the event.

I responded: ‘Your website has no accessibility information.’ I was treated to a performative apologetic diatribe in response, all about how they were totally working on that but they just wanted to get the website up now and I’m totally right, they should do better, and so on. They seemed to be looking for some kind of absolution from me, but they weren’t getting it. I commented only that the fact that they had seen fit to publish an inaccessible website with no accessibility information spoke volumes about their supposed commitment to intersectionality, and I’d prefer to support organisations that foreground accessibility from the start rather than treating it as an afterthought.

This is something I have commented on before, but with people organising marches and teach-ins and a variety of events rather a lot right now, I wanted to revisit it. Because we are all in this together, and this is a hard battle, and roughly 20 percent of the people in the U.S. are disabled. We have a legal right to inclusion (such as it is under this administration) but you also have an ethical obligation. If you care enough about social justice to be organising events, they should be accessible. ‘But it’s for women.’ Okay but you know some women are disabled right? ‘It’s for LGBQT people.’ Some of whom are disabled. ‘It’s for…’ Disability is an experience and identity that spans every category and is highly intersectional. We fought for social justice throughout the 20th century alongside nondisabled people and we were often erased, marginalised, and left on our own when we needed their help for fights specific to our community. This legacy of exclusion contributed to disablist social attitudes overall, but also to disablist attitudes in social justice movements.

Accessibility cannot be an afterthought. 

As soon as you start thinking: ‘I would like to plan an event!’ you should be thinking about accessibility and inclusion, because if there are no disabled speakers, leaders, and so forth at you event, you have a problem. If you aren’t familiar with accessibility issues, hire an accessibility consultant. You should have a disabled person on your board or committee organising the event already, but if you don’t, find one. From the start, from day one, as you’re looking at communications and selecting a venue and the services you need to provide, accessibility should be a continuous part of the conversation.

Audit spaces for accessibility. Not workable? Don’t hold your event there. If you’re providing food, make sure you can obtain a variety of options, taking note of common allergies like nuts, dairy, eggs, and soy – if you can, try to pare down the meal offerings so that most people can eat most things without stressing out about whether something is safe. Hire ASL interpreters to be there throughout the event, and/or consider CART, especially for major speeches. Be meticulous about making the space accessible from a physical perspective.

But also consider emotional access. If a space isn’t welcoming to disabled people, it is not acceptable, even if it goes above and beyond physical access standards. Make the space welcoming by clearly addressing disability in your anti-discrimination policy. By having disability representation in the leadership, among panelists, and in other representatives of the event. By making access seamless and part of the service rather than an annoying burden. By communicating about your accessibility plans and policies from the start, rather than retroactively adding them to your website.

Yes. Your communications from the start should have accessibility information, including details about the services you will be providing and the nature of the venue, and contact information so that people with questions or additional needs know where to go. I don’t attend events that do not clearly communicate information about access because they feel hostile to me — even if I don’t need that many physical access accommodations. If you don’t know what kinds of services to provide and how to structure an access policy, for pete’s sake, ask someone. Or search online — lots of events have archives so you can see how they talked about disability.

This is not a situation where you can launch communications with no information about accessibility, or say ‘accessibility information to come.’ When you say that, it tells me that you don’t care about disabled people. Period. Even if that information is: ‘We are still working on a venue, but we commit to having…,’ that tells me that the organisers have access in mind and are including disabled people in their vision of social justice.

If you’re organising events, put access in the front of your mind. If you’re being invited as a guest of honour, speaker, or something else, ask about their access policy. If it’s not readily available in their literature, ask why not. If they don’t have one, ask why. Ask if there are other disabled people invited. If not, ask why. Ask if there is race and gender parity. If there are queer people and Muslims. If it’s a bunch of white people, two of whom are disabled, that is not an inclusive event. Refuse to appear, endorse, or participate in events that do not include disabled people and practice inclusion in totality — for example, I’ve already turned down two panel appearances this year because every participants was white. And if you’re an attendee, commit to those values too. If you can’t find access information on a group’s announcements, ask why they think it’s okay to exclude disabled people. And tell them you won’t be attending, out of solidarity with your disabled friends.

Image: Taiwan Accessibility, Christian Heilmann, Flickr